Conference presentations

200904221123 from Wellcome Library
Black hole spews water vapour:
[Via BBC News | Science/Nature | World Edition]

Astronomers have found the most distant evidence of water in the Universe, a major conference has been told.

The vapour is thought to be present in a jet ejected from a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy that is billions of light-years away.

The discovery, by a US-European team, was announced at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science meeting.

Nice to see that this was done with Earth-bound technology. The Hubble’s pictures usually overshadow most everything else because they are so detailed and awe inspiring. (See this discussion of just one recent photo).Masers are not quite as sexy as lasers (I don’t think one has been used in a James Bond movie) but are interesting nonetheless.

This work was actually first revealed back in December. This latest article appeared because the data were presented at a conference. This would be one of the first times for other scientists to see the work themselves and ask questions about it.

Such public displays of a researcher’s work are often a critical part of the vetting process. Any bias or weakness in the data can be revealed and examined, usually in the Q & A segment.

I’m sure these researchers had little difficulties presenting their work. It is reasonable straightforward and probably not subject to harsh questioning by the audience.

That is often one of the fears that many presenters at conferences – that there is a heretofore unseen flaw in the scientific rigor of the project that will be revealed by careful, devastating probing of the audience, holding the speaker up to public ridicule.

That is why we are all trained in the tools of a politician at a difficult town meeting: obfuscation, answering a question that was not asked, misunderstanding the question, dropping the mike, stepping off the stage, fainting, etc.

While it does not happen often (fear of public humiliation is a strong stick to help ensure rigor), we are all aware of when a particularly hard question has been asked and the presenter dances around the question, trying to delay things until they can say “Well, why don’t we discuss this later so we don’t take up anymore time from the other speakers?”

But sometimes the most fun, for an unbiased audience member, is when two bitter rivals dance around each other like a classic Saturday Night Live routine.

It’s why I always love the Q & A part of a meeting. It has historically been the first time many scientists have had to state their support or objections to a line of research. So I can gather an idea for how the scientific community feels about a line of research.

Now, we can do a lot of this online (even the ‘ignorant slut’ part), with blogs and such. But I still like to see the real-life give and take of a good Q & A after a presentation. Those are the things that make memories at the pub afterwards.

And often produce beer stained doodles detailing new lines of research.

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